When Patrick Hessel was a teenager he remembers standing on the corner of the street in New York behind a man in a wheelchair. The man was struggling to get something out of the backpack that was hung behind his seat. “The poor guy was trapped,” Mr Hessel, now 34, recalls. “He was vulnerable because the only storage space was behind his seat. He had no control. It was not practical.”
Mr Hessel, who was announced as the Slovak country winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year earlier this year, set about designing a new type of wheelchair with a spokeless wheel that made it possible to access storage space underneath the seat. He designed it using carbon fibre which made the wheelchair stronger and lighter as well as much easier to fold up. Mr Hessel entered his innovative wheelchair design in a competition and came second.
“It inspired me to start a company working with carbon-fibre technology because I realised that it was a material that offered almost unlimited possibilities,” he says.
Mr Hessel grew up in Germany and studied engineering and management in the UK before starting his company, c2i, in a disused industrial site in 2005. c2i initially began making its own products before focusing on manufacturing carbon fibre composite components for clients in the aviation and automotive industries.
At first, it was tough going. “The big original equipment manufacturers can be quite conservative. People are not always aware of what is possible with carbon fibre,” Mr Hessel recalls.
Today, c2i’s headquarters in Dunajska Streda employ more than 400 people. The company’s turnover last year was about €16m and its client list includes Porsche, Jaguar, BMW, Airbus and Boeing.
Carbon fibre — which is made of strong, thin, intertwined crystalline filaments of carbon — is lighter than aluminium but stronger than steel. “Carbon fibre is a beautiful material,” Mr Hessel continues. “It’s amazing how light and strong it is. It doesn’t bend.”
The material’s inelasticity and high heat tolerance have made it a crucial component in the construction of Formula One racing cars. “You see drivers crash into a wall at 250mph and just walk out,” Mr Hessel says. “It has made the sport so much safer.”
Carbon fibre’s chief drawback is that it can be very expensive to make. In Formula One cars, for example, the carbon fibre fabric is laid by hand, which is very labour intensive. “One of our biggest challenges is convincing people we can do the work in a consistent manner over a high volume,” Mr Hessel says.
In the automotive sector, c2i typically manufactures components such as the air box, monocoques (single-shell chassis and body structures) and spoilers, while in aviation it typically makes interior and seating parts.
“Our next big step is to develop a technology that can significantly bring down the price per kilo, then demand will go up even more,” Mr Hessel says. “Carbon-fibre technology will become far more commonplace as the price drops, especially in the automotive sector.”
The company is working on technology to manufacture large carbon-fibre aviation parts, such as the fuselage or the wings, which can be laid out by machine.
“The big risk, however, is that we invest too much money in research and development because we may never get it back. But at the same time if we don’t make these investments we could never get there. It’s a difficult balance.”
Mr Hessel remains genuinely enthused about the groundbreaking potential that carbon-fibre composites have to make the world a better place. “It’s lighter than pretty much any other structural material. Anything you move around — cars, aeroplanes or whatever — you want to be as light as possible. By using less energy you use less fuel and reduce the overall carbon footprint. It can really benefit the environment,” he says. “There are so many incredible things that we could do with this material in years to come.”
Mr Hessel waxes lyrical about the AeroMobil flying car project for which c2i has produced parts in the past. Under development in his native Slovakia, the flying car folds out its wings and becomes an aeroplane. c2i is working on another prototype under development in the US: the Hyperloop transport system which aims to shoot pods carrying passengers down low-pressure tubes at speeds of up to 760mph. “Only carbon fibre can make these kind of dreams a reality,” Mr Hessel adds. “The possibilities are infinite.”
But for the time being, Mr Hessel’s innovative wheelchair design remains on the drawing board. “One day I hope it will become a reality,” he says.